Everybody loves Marc-Andre Fleury, and the new fans of the NHL’s newest franchise are about to find out why he’s the most popular player in the game today.
Sidney Crosby has never looked so lonely. He sits at a podium in the depths of Las Vegas’ T-Mobile Arena with an unprecedented amount of elbow room. He doesn’t face the usual swarm of cameras and reporters. It’s the rarest of hockey sights for the game’s biggest star.
That’s because every reporter in the room stands about 15 feet away, at another podium, awaiting a different player’s arrival. Crosby’s ex-teammate, Marc-Andre Fleury, just finished his coronation as the Golden Knights’ final expansion draft pick, becoming the new franchise’s starting goaltender and first big-name player. Nobody wants to miss what ‘Flower’ has to say when he exits the stage. The reporters choose to let Crosby marinate in the corner rather than relinquish any real estate near Fleury.
It’s an odd scene considering Fleury wasn’t even a starting netminder by the end of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ 2017 playoff run, which culminated in their second consecutive Stanley Cup and third since they drafted Fleury and Crosby first overall in 2003 and 2005, respectively. Fleury carried the Penguins through the first two rounds of the post-season against the Columbus Blue Jackets and top-seeded Washington Capitals, but ceded the crease back to rookie and rising star Matt Murray, who displayed his usual icy poise en route to his second championship in as many springs. Why, then, does everyone care so much about Fleury?
Well, that’s just it. Everyone cares so much about Fleury. Ask teammates, opponents, coaches, GMs and reporters around the NHL, “Who’s the nicest player in the sport?” and Fleury wins the vote hands down. He’s the most beloved dressing room character in pro hockey. The idea that he gets a second chance at being a No. 1 NHL goaltender at age 32 isn’t news like Connor McDavid’s $100-million contract extension is. But it’s news because it’s happening to a guy everyone roots for. Of the Golden Knights in attendance on the night of the expansion draft, only Fleury got a standing ovation.
“He’s amazing,” said Vegas defenseman Deryk Engelland, who played five seasons with Fleury in Pittsburgh. “Top-notch in every aspect. A great teammate. He’s fun to be around. He’s never too high, never too low. And in the community he’s great, around the rink and everything. Nothing bad I could ever say about that guy.”
Ask Fleury why everyone loves him and the reaction is predictable: he laughs. He blushes. He downplays it.
“It’s very flattering,” he said. “It’s not something I try to do or force. I go to the rink, I love what I do, and I have a lot of great teammates and have made a lot of good friends throughout the years. I always cared about our team, our organization, and always wanted everyone to like it.”
It’s remarkable Fleury has no enemies given the pummelling his ego has taken in his career. No one would blame the guy for having a huge chip on his shoulder. He was labelled a choker after clearing a puck off his own defenseman and into Canada’s net to lose the 2004 World Junior Championship gold medal game. He got rushed to the NHL at 19 only to get rushed back to junior halfway through the season before he could play 25 games and qualify for a major salary bonus. He got pulled in Game 5 of the 2009 Stanley Cup final after being humiliated for five goals in 35 minutes, then rallied to allow only two goals in the next two games, helping Pittsburgh win the Cup. Fleury was maligned for his ugly playoff performance against Philadelphia in 2012, in which he allowed a whopping 26 goals in six games. And after posting his best regular season numbers ever in 2015-16, a concussion shelved him just before the playoffs, and he never got his starting job back once Murray took over.
Fleury kept his head down and, by all accounts from the team, was a great mentor to Murray. A Murray injury in Game 1 of the 2017 post-season thrust Fleury back in net, and he excelled more often than not for two rounds, but the Pens jumped at the chance to insert Murray back in the lineup once he was healthy.
For such a well-liked player, Fleury sure gets jerked around a lot. But he always handles it with a smile.
“Certainly he was disappointed that he wasn’t starting in the next series after playing so well in the first two rounds,” said Penguins GM Jim Rutherford. “Quietly, he said that, but certainly not to the point where he was creating any issues. He’s the best team player in pro sports the way he’s handled everything here.”
For the second straight year, Fleury classily stepped aside for Murray, a force-in-the-making with a career .925 save percentage. Fleury kept a poker face on the bench and in the dressing room.
“It’s not always easy,” he said. “I never want to hurt my teammates. To me what’s important is the team success. I wanted to keep very cool and not show any frustration and try to help the guys the way I could when I was at the rink. I thought it was more important than being selfish and making a big deal about it.”
Rutherford once described Fleury as, “as likely to help you change a tire in a snowstorm as he is to help a teammate.” He’s affable. He’s a known practical joker who likes to chirp his teammates in practice. And he plans to keep running his mouth when he plays his former Penguins buddies. Anything to cut the tension when he faces his old team next, as he believes it’ll be “very awkward” Dec. 14 when the Pens come to town as a full team of guys who know everything about him as a player. They all have soft spots for their now-ex goalie, especially Crosby, Fleury’s closest companion on the team, and perhaps none more than Rutherford. He’ll never forget the way Fleury treated his nine-year-old son, James.
“Marc always takes the time and treats him great,” Rutherford said. “It doesn’t matter what day I bring him around the team. Marc’s the guy that takes the most time. The other guys are good to him, too, but Marc always takes the time to talk to him, ask him how his school is, ask him how his hockey is and all that. But he does that naturally. He doesn’t go out of his way to do that. It’s a natural thing for him, and he’s very good with other people.”
It thus hurt deeply to bid Fleury farewell. But it was a necessity. The only way to avoid losing Murray to Vegas in the expansion draft was to have Fleury waive his no-movement clause. And doing so was the right move for both parties. After all Fleury gave the Penguins, winning a franchise-record 375 games, they owed him a fresh start. Fleury knew it was coming, too, as far back as last summer. He spoke with Rutherford after the 2016 Cup final and they both figured 2016-17 would be Fleury’s final campaign with the Penguins.
Fleury’s name popped up in the media approaching the 2017 trade deadline, but the reality was the Penguins had no intention of moving him mid-season. They wanted insurance for Murray, who has proven a bit injury-prone in his young career, and the plan worked perfectly. The Golden Knights were always in the back of Rutherford’s mind, and he had preliminary discussions with Vegas GM George McPhee from the trade deadline onward. It stung Rutherford to know the playoffs would be his last run with Fleury. And Fleury had Vegas on the brain early, too.
“I was reading a lot about what was happening with the team, with the staff, with the organization,” Fleury said. “From (owner Bill) Foley down to Mr. McPhee, Gerard (Gallant) as a coach. They all seem like great people.”
It was a lightning-quick life turnaround for Fleury. The freshly crowned Cup-champion Penguins had a team dinner a few days after their victory, and they acknowledged it was a “Last Supper” of sorts for Fleury. They wouldn’t be teammates anymore in a matter of days.
“We thought that it was going to be it,” he said. “We didn’t get too much into emotional stuff. We knew that was it, but we kept it ‘manly.’ ”
He’d barely wrung the champagne out of his clothes before heading to Sin City. He brought his wife, Veronique, who has been with him since they met in their teens when he billeted with a family a few doors down from her house. They started exploring the city and, well, shopping. It’s Vegas, after all. Not that Fleury and his family will spend 2017-18 holed up in the Caesars Palace presidential penthouse like Celine Dion. No, Fleury has two young daughters, Estelle and Scarlett, and says he wants them to have a normal life. Thanks to the advice of close friend Engelland, a Vegas citizen, Fleury has learned a lot about the other side of Vegas already. He’s impressed by the mountains and tranquility.
“He’s the first who told me about the neighborhoods and the people who live in Vegas,” Fleury said. “Because all I knew was The Strip. He told me there were nice neighborhoods, nice people, nice quality of life, so I shouldn’t worry about going there.”
And Fleury immediately had work to do on his new turf. Less than 24 hours after the Golden Knights picked him, he was popping up in team-orchestrated videos, greeting UFC president Dana White, posing at the “Welcome to Las Vegas” sign and even recreating a famous scene from The Hangover. Fleury, ever the joker, naturally played the Zach Galifianakis role, reading the “one-man wolf pack” speech from a rooftop. It was clear the moment Vegas took him that he’d be the face of the franchise. Fleury claims he doesn’t want to be the face of anything, but that’s exactly the kind of awe-shucks thing a face of the franchise would say, isn’t it? And Fleury has a lot of experience working to grow the game with the local hockey community in Pittsburgh. He’s excited to interact with Vegas’ citizens. He was pleasantly overwhelmed by the fan reaction when he was announced.
So it’s clear Year 1 as a Golden Knight will be fun. But what about on the hockey side of things? It’s a real wild card. Fleury of course says he’s excited by the roster, but it has one player who’s scored more than 58 points in a season in James Neal. Vegas has all of two players who’ve been to an All-Star Game in Fleury and Neal and a grand total of zero individual awards on the entire roster. We know the front office’s goal here, and it’s to contend for a lottery draft pick in 2018. The Knights aced their 2017 draft, though (see pg. 46), and teams can get good in a hurry in an era that rewards speed, youth and salary-cap savvy. So maybe Fleury hangs around longer than just the remaining two years on his contract. He knows he has a starting job all to himself, and that means he can resume his chase with history. His 375 wins rank 15th all-time. The active players ahead of him, Roberto Luongo (453) and Henrik Lundqvist (405), are 38 and 35. Fleury could average an attainable 30 wins over the next six seasons and get to 555 for his career, which would place him second all-time ahead of even Patrick Roy (551) and behind the uncatchable Martin Brodeur (691). He admits to having his eye on the top three of the wins list.
“Yeah, I took a look at it,” he said. “It’s pretty cool. I’ve been lucky to play with a lot of good players and win some games. I want to keep winning, not to get up there, not to get No. 3. I just want to win so our team’s successful, to get in the playoffs and have success in the playoffs. That’s what matters.”
He’ll get his chance. No more Murray blocking his path, and it’s far too early to look over his shoulder at Calvin Pickard. The world doesn’t always reward the nice guys, so it’s worth celebrating when it does. ‘Flower’ gets a second opportunity to bloom. And he’ll have the entire hockey world cheering him on the moment he dons his armor for his first game as a Golden Knight.